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Dr. Tamara Freeman

Dr. Tamara Freeman of Saddle River is a Holocaust music recitalist and educator.

She shares that job description with only a few people worldwide.

“There are only a few Holocaust ethnomusicologists in the world,” said Freeman, who first entered the field by researching the music of the Jews interned in ghettos and concentration camps during World War II.

Today, her work includes researching, teaching, teacher training, performing, conducting, writing, and composing.

Freeman said she has relied on a variety of firsthand sources: “interviewing survivors, studying archival music from that time, and reading autobiographies of musicians and composers of all ages and from all countries during that time.”

Her journey began in 1994, when Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed the New Jersey state Mandate to teach the Holocaust and Genocide into law.

Although Freeman had been teaching instrumental music in the Ridgewood public school system since 1982 – she retired from that job in 2012 – “when the mandate was passed, all teachers in all grades and subject areas were mandated to include Holocaust history in their subject area,” she said. “It never occurred to me that people in ghettos and concentration camps had music.”

As she began to do research and to interview survivors, she looked for a curriculum on how to teach the material she was unearthing. There wasn’t any.

“So I went to Rutgers and interviewed for their doctoral program in music education,” she said. “During the interview, I told them that I already knew what my dissertation must be: a curriculum to teach [that] music.”

Her goal, she said, was to do more than create an age-appropriate teaching manual. Rather, she said, the curriculum must “speak to the hearts and consciences of children and teachers … teaching lessons of morality and courage through music.”

Freeman received her doctorate in 2007 and has been using her curriculum and teaching other teachers to use it since then. Through her program, children learn not only how to sing and play the songs but also under what circumstances people composed and sang that music.

Whether lullabies, work songs, partisan songs, or the kind of instrumental art music composed in Theresienstadt, the music prompts questions about what happened during the war, Freeman said. And there are answers. Often, it “reveals what was happening at the moment it was written. It was composed when people were in hiding, while they were at work, or they were songs of spiritual resistance.”

“Some music was composed specifically for clandestine concerts,” she said. “For example, in Dachau, Austrian conductor Herbert Zipper composed vocal and instrumental music and produced clandestine concerts in an abandoned latrine. Prisoners gave up food ration cards to attend a 15-minute concert. Music brought about a glimmer of normalcy.”

Freeman, accomplished at both the violin and viola, said there have been a number of “basherte” moments in her pursuit of this material. Take, for example, her acquisition of a 1935 Joseph Bausch viola, rescued from the Shoah.

“It was being sold on consignment by a bow dealer,” she said. “I went to get my bows rehaired and said I was looking for a good-quality viola and he should let me know if he got one.” Without knowing about her research, “He told me [the viola] had just come in and had an interesting story.”

As it happened, the instrument had belonged to a Hungarian woman, Tauba Butzell, who had been killed in Theresienstadt. After the Nazis captured Butzell in Berlin, a neighbor had rushed in to salvage the viola. After the war, it was shipped to Butzell’s sister in the United States.

“It was like God is making me responsible for this,” Freeman said, adding that while her research into Holocaust music has been exciting – “because survivors who have sung their melodies to me have instructed me to pass the music along” – it is coupled with a “deep sense of heavy responsibility.”

To ensure that the survivors’ voices continue to be heard, Freeman has created seven different presentations.

“The most popular is my lecture-recital,” she said, noting that she has delivered these talks at synagogues, churches, schools, and museums. “I talk about the lives and legacies of the Holocaust music composers and performers. I tell their stories, describing what they were doing while creating and performing the music and how it helped them cope.” She also reads the text and lyrics of their works aloud and then plays each piece.

She said she is “amazed at how quickly kids learn to pronounce the language. They pick it up immediately and they love the music.” She explains this by suggesting that “by and large, they do not appreciate being taught things that are phony

“This music speaks of truth.”

Freeman will teach one-day courses at Fieldstone Middle School in Montvale this month, and she is scheduled to offer a week-long series of classes at the Dallas Holocaust museum. The director there heard her teach and perform at a 2012 program at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

In addition, Freeman visits colleges and universities to train music education majors and graduate students in the use of her curriculum.

“Teaching has a rippling effect,” she said, suggesting that the effects of those classes ultimately will be more widely felt. “I handed out lesson plans and music to them. When you get something interesting, it tends to get shared.”

Freeman has also done some composing – writing “20th-century modern music that reflects the emotions and history of the Jewish people during the Holocaust” – as well as arranging, working primarily with folk songs.

“In a folk song, you have a melody, but a chorus, band, or orchestra need more parts,” she said. “I have been taking the melody line and translating it into scores.”

The Defiant Requiem Foundation has invited Freeman to write lesson plans that teachers can download from the Internet. The foundation works to preserve the memory of the prisoners in Theresienstadt, “who found hope and inspiration in the arts and humanities.”

Her work, Freeman said, is important “because lessons of morality have not yet been learned by the world. Genocide continues.”

“Music by its very nature affects behavior,” she said. “When people are singing folk songs and uttering the words of despair and longing and they’re fusing that text with the melodies, it speaks to the mind and the heart.”

For more information about Freeman’s work, go to www.HolocaustMusic.org.